How Gabe Amo keeps making all the right moves

Driven from a young age, the Democratic CD1 candidate from Pawtucket understands the people part of politics

By: - October 9, 2023 5:01 am

1st Congressional District Democratic candidate Gabe Amo visits seniors at Franklin Court Assisted Living in Bristol on the morning of Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. East Bay communities proved to be a big base of support for Amo in election results for the Sept. 5 primary. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

Former Rhode Island Democratic Party Chairman Bill Lynch’s favorite Gabe Amo story has nothing to do with politics.

It takes place under the stadium lights of the football field at Moses Brown School, where Amo and Lynch’s son were high school classmates, as well as teammates and friends. Amo, a defensive back, was by no means the star player – 5-foot-8 and about 130 pounds at the time – but according to Lynch, Amo made the “best tackle” in school history.

Amo was taken off the bench to replace an injured teammate. Minutes later, Lynch watched as his son’s friend “came flying out of nowhere” to tackle a player on the opposite team.

“You could hear it, the sound of it. It was silent, and then the whole place just exploded, and Gabe just bounced up on his feet like nothing had happened,” Lynch recalled in a recent interview. “My son and I still love to give him a hard time about that.”

He loves to tell it partly because he thinks it embarrasses Amo, who he described as self-effacing. But also because it exemplifies the arc of Amo’s story: defying expectations, whether on the football field, in the classroom, or most recently, in a hotly contested Democratic primary for Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District.

Gabe Amo’s senior portrait in the Moses Brown Class of 2005 yearbook.

“If there’s one thing Gabe is used to, it’s starting at the bottom and working his way up,” Lynch said. “He has sort of outperformed expectations in every single way.”

While there was no public polling in the Sept. 5 primary, Amo was hardly considered a shoo-in for the nomination. The 12-way race (winnowed to 11 during early voting after Don Carlson dropped out) featured big names in state politics, and despite Amo’s connections to the Biden and Obama administrations, he was by no means a household name when he announced his candidacy.

Yet the Pawtucket native secured nearly one-third of the vote, also winning the most votes in every municipality within the district except for Providence, Woonsocket and Central Falls. He raised more than $600,000 for his campaign and proved the depth of his local and national connections with endorsements from former U.S. Rep. Patrick Joseph Kennedy, Newport Mayor Xaykham Khamsyvoravong and the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, among others. Not to mention his frequent TV ads showing photos of Gabe side by side with President Joe Biden.

From politics and pop lyrics: ‘encyclopedic knowledge’ 

Friend and former White House colleague David Dietz was not surprised by Amo’s success. Dietz, who worked with Amo in the White House’s Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs under the Obama administration, kept tabs on Amo’s campaign from his Chicago home, including through a text thread with other friends and former coworkers.

“We had no shortage of folks who have expertise in voter turnout expressing early confidence he was going to have a good showing,” Dietz said. 

Dietz believed it too, having worked alongside Amo on the Obama reelection campaign 2012, and later at the White House. They were among the many recent college graduates yearning to make a difference through political work.

But Amo stood out from the pack as, in Dietz’ words, “someone who was just so much smarter than me.”

During their time at the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago, for example, campaign staffers were sent daily emails featuring relevant news stories. Dietz read them as often as he could. But Amo, he said, already knew the stories before the emails were sent.

“You could give him any place in the country and he could tell you something about the local political dynamics, issues that mattered, how voters were feeling, what congressional races were going on,” Dietz said. “He had this sort of encyclopedic knowledge that was jaw-dropping to me.”

That knowledge of politics was equally matched by an impressive command of pop culture, with Amo able to recite the lyrics to songs both classic and trending word-for-word, Dietz recalled.

And like any good Rhode Islander, he could name what seemed to Dietz like “pretty much every famous person who ever came from Rhode Island.” 

A policy wonk unafraid to drill down

Joy Fox, a friend and colleague from the Raimondo days, recalled the specificity with which Amo could answer questions about the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act during a Cranston house party held during the early days of his congressional campaign.

“It was a level of detail you don’t get from a news story or a prep document, that you only get from when you were in the room,” Fox said.

Even as a young child, Amo’s intelligence was apparent, according to Lanny Goff, Amo’s seventh grade teacher at the now-closed St. Mary’s School in Pawtucket.

“I used to be able to go down to the kindergarten teacher and ask her who was the smartest student in the school,” Goff said. “There would be no hesitation, she would always say ‘Gabe Amo.’”

Lynch also recalled Amo’s intellect from dinner table conversations when Amo spend time at his Pawtucket house. 

“Gabe was 16 going on 30,” he said. “I don’t know if there is such a thing as a typical high school kid, but it wasn’t Gabe. He was unusually serious about academics.”

Not that he didn’t suffer the usual teenage impulse to avoid homework in favor of “more fun” activities.

I had to stay on him to get his work done sometimes,” said Karin Morse, Amo’s advisor at Moses Brown as well as the school’s dean of students. “There was definitely some times I had to chase him, or work with him on time management.”

I used to be able to go down to the kindergarten teacher and ask her who was the smartest student in the school. There would be no hesitation, she would always say ‘Gabe Amo.’

– Lanny Goff, Amo’s seventh grade teacher at the now-closed St. Mary’s School in Pawtucket

Amo’s resume reflects his intellectual prowess; he attended high school at the prestigious Moses Brown School on Providence’s East Side with an academic scholarship. He later went on to win a Truman Scholarship for public service at Wheaton College, and a Marshall Scholarship to do his graduate studies at Oxford.

Gabe Amo and his mother Wendy Socree embrace at his campaign watch party at The Guild in Pawtucket after unofficial results show him as the winner of the Democratic primary for Rhode Island’s open 1st Congressional District seat on Tuesday, Sept. 5. At far left is Amo’s father, Gabe Amo Sr.
(Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

The son of immigrant parents from West Africa, Amo said his parents always emphasized academics, making sacrifices for him to attend prestigious – and more expensive – schools. But he never felt the stereotypical push associated with immigrant parents who pressure their children into lucrative and prestigious careers in medicine or law (though he earned $110,000 in 2022 at his White House job according to federal disclosure reports filed with the House Ethics Commission).

Whether it was his childhood obsession with pro-wrestling or his budding adolescent interest in politics, Amo’s parents embraced his passions, he said. In some ways, his career choice wasn’t so different from theirs: helping people, like his mom who worked as a nurse, with a customer service angle his father, who owns a liquor store, could understand.

Not that there weren’t moments of hesitation, like when Amo chose to take a semester off during his freshman year at Wheaton College to work as a field organizer for Sheldon Whitehouse’s 2006 congressional campaign.

“There was some slight confusion, like ‘Why? Are you going to go back to school after?’” Amo recalled his parents’ reaction to his decision.

His answer: “I thought it was important.”

That same sentiment guided Amo through many of his career choices, from helping Whitehouse defeat Republican incumbent Lincoln Chafee in 2006, to work in the Obama, Raimondo, and Biden administrations, and a brief stint as a regional director during Mike Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential campaign. 

The Bloomberg campaign, unlike others Amo had worked on, did not end in victory. Instead, Bloomberg dropped out in March 2020, and Amo quickly switched gears, securing a job with the Biden campaign.

“I think in 2020, my goal was just how do we defeat Donald Trump and how do we end this threat to our democracy,” Amo said. 

Asked if he would have voted for Bloomberg over Biden if both were on the primary ballot, Amo said he doesn’t like to dwell on hypotheticals that didn’t happen. Nor does he spend time focused on policy areas where he might disagree with his bosses.

“My goal is always to do the most good in whatever context. Sometimes it’s putting people in that position, sometimes it’s working in government, and now, hopefully, after Nov. 7, if I am successful, I’ll have the opportunity to actually go be someone who can make some change.”

A smiling Gabe Amo faces the news media after unofficial results showed him winning the Democratic primary for 1st Congressional District race after polls closed on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, at his campaign’s watch party at The Guild in Pawtucket. (Michael Salerno/Rhode Island Current)

Focus on the goal

Amo was often labeled as a moderate during the primary race, partly because of his ties to more middle-of-the-road Democrats including Biden and former Gov. Gina Raimondo. But he eschews the label in an explanation that sounds a lot like the words of his former bosses.

“I am a solutions-oriented Democrat,” Amo said. “I am focused on getting things done.”

His answer may sound like standard political speak, but Amo is not your typical politician. Over and over, his friends and former colleagues interviewed for this story independently emphasized Amo’s sincerity and empathy.

“You rarely cross paths with someone in politics that is so universally loved,” said Jon Romano, who worked with Gabe at the Rhode Island State House under Raimondo. “Gabe understands the important part of public service, which is the people part. I think that gets lost sometimes in the field we work in.”

“Gabe was the type of guy that was the last person in the room, putting the chairs away, and sticking around to talk to any stragglers,” said Tony Simon, who worked with Amo on Whitehouse’s 2006 campaign. 

Dietz described Amo’s work ethic as “legendary” — the one working the latest hours, clocking in on weekends and raising his hand for extra assignments.

And he actually got the job done, even on challenging issues like Rhode Island’s “red flag” law, signed in 2018, which allows a judge to remove guns from people who have indicated they might use them to commit violence. 

“He’s a pretty calm, chill dude, but he has this mindset that he just kind of powers through,” Romano said. “It’s not a stress, it’s a desire to get stuff done.”

That same desire powered Amo through a hectic congressional campaign, traversing the 1st Congressional District for fundraisers, community events and canvassing with volunteers. Having won the primary, he’s not slowing down ahead of the Nov. 7 general election, either, though his once-public daily schedule has fallen off, and he’s declined to participate in several debates against Republican rival Gerry Leonard. He has agreed to debate his opponent only twice.

“David Cicilline set a great example,” Amo said. “Everyone said they saw him everywhere, and I want to do my best to be everywhere. I am going to work hard until 7:59 p.m. on Nov. 7 to make that happen.”


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.